Ex-Apple Engineer Arrested for Stealing Self-Driving Car Secrets

Xpeng Motors Credit: Pan Daily
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A former Apple engineer was arrested and charged with stealing secrets related to the Cupertino tech giant’s self-driving car initiative.

Xiaolang Zhang was arrested over the weekend at San Jose International Airport while waiting to board a flight to China, The Washington Post reported. Zhang was charged with theft of trade secrets, according to documents filed in the Northern District Court of California by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

At the time of his arrest, Zhang reportedly said he was working for a Chinese startup that was developing autonomous vehicle technology.

He was accused of downloading a slew of files that contained “engineering schematics and technical reports” before leaving to work for the Chinese startup, a company called Xiaopeng Motors, the Post reported.

Zhang was hired in 2015 and worked as an engineer for Project Titan, Apple’s rumored not-so-secret car project. Specifically, he worked on designing and testing circuit boards that analyze data gathered from self-driving car sensors.

The court documents state that Zhang’s position in Project Titan granted him “broad access to secure and confidential internal databases containing trade secrets and intellectual property.”

They also reveal that Apple first became suspicious of Zhang earlier this year after he had returned from paternity leave. He informed supervisors on April that he would resign from Apple, saying that he wanted to move back to China.

An internal investigation at Apple found that, shortly before his resignation, Zhang’s activity on Apple’s servers “increased exponentially.”

When Apple staff questioned Zhang, he admitted to taking hardware components and using AirDrop to transfer company data to his wife’s laptop. A forensic investigation carried out by Apple found that much of the data Zhang obtained was “highly-problematic.” He was terminated on May 5.

Authorities learned on July 7 that Zhang bought a “last-minute” airline ticket to Beijing. Before he could take the flight, federal agents arrested the former engineer “without incident.”

Project Titan is Apple’s self-driving car project — an initiative that is well-known in the tech industry but has never been publicly revealed. While originally rumored to be developing an actual car, the project later shifted its focus to autonomous vehicle systems.

Apple also has a notorious secrecy culture — oftentimes to the chagrin of employees. The company has historically come down hard on internal leakers.

In a statement to TechCrunch, an Apple spokesperson said that the company “takes confidentiality and the protection of our intellectual property very seriously.”

“We’re working with authorities on this matter and will do everything possible to make sure this individual and any other individuals involved are held accountable for their actions,” the statement continued.

For its part, Xiaopeng Motors told Reuters that it had terminated Zhang and is working with local authorities. The Chinese company also denied any involvement in the theft of trade secrets and added that any stolen intellectual property never made it to them.

Zhang is slated to be arraigned on July 27, court documents show. If he is found guilty, he could face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

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